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SA: Watching TV – And Waiting

NEW YORK -- With competition heating up in the television shopping arena, networks are beating a path to designer showrooms, hoping to pluck some stars from the fashion firmament.<BR><BR>Joining QVC and Home Shopping Network this year will be TV...

NEW YORK — With competition heating up in the television shopping arena, networks are beating a path to designer showrooms, hoping to pluck some stars from the fashion firmament.

Joining QVC and Home Shopping Network this year will be TV Macy’s, Q2, and Spiegel’s The Catalog Channel. All are vying for marquee names.

But well-known designers who missed the first parade to the tube are not particularly eager to put their apparel on television if it is to be sold alongside polyester pantsuits and gaudy rings.

Although they are clearly intrigued with the idea of home shopping, they’ve concluded that it’s still in its infancy and have decided to sit this round out and let others worry about working out the kinks.

Here’s what some of them are saying:

  • While designers don’t doubt that home shopping will become a retail force in the next decade, they wonder if the current options — QVC and Home Shopping Network — can market clothing with a strong fashion edge.

  • For many designers, television is incongruous with the aura of exclusivity they’ve tried to cultivate.

  • QVC and HSN combined reach over 100 million homes. But many designers say they shudder to think of millions of housewives wearing the same outfit.

  • Designers wonder if their apparel will appeal to typical home shopping customers, who tend to wear slightly larger sizes and favor comfortable, synthetic fabrics.

  • Designers realize that they would have to manufacture separate lines for television, which could be a time drain. They also worry about alienating their retail partners.
“It needs refinement,” said Randy Kemper. “Nothing seems to come off as sophisticated. It’s like glass and not lead crystal.

“I don’t think anybody is thinking about marketing their own designer collection on QVC yet,” Kemper continued. “QVC asked whether I would consider doing a lesser-priced collection. It’s not who I’m trying to appeal to. I don’t think designer customers are home watching QVC. A lot of women buying designer clothing are working.”

Michael Kors said, “The only reason we have not gotten involved with it is because I think it does take another product line. It’s been a time thing. The regular collection is too high-priced. It’s a different customer. There are also differences as to how you would fit things and cut things.”

Kors, like many designers, has been approached by Q2 “I think it’s a very interesting venue for selling,” he said. “It has to be analyzed. We’re still looking into all the channels.”

The delicate financial state of retailing has forced many fashion firms to reexamine home shopping.

Allen B. Schwartz, chief executive officer and design director of A.B.S., said, “As a manufacturer, any opportunity to drum up new business at a regular price and at the same time service a new customer is wonderful.

“Right now, I’d like to see a much more design-oriented show. It seems pretty moderate and price-driven,” said Schwartz, who was also contacted by QVC and Q2.

“When they get into better goods, then I’ll relate to it. But I’m not into discounting and putting a label as important as A.B.S. out there. I want to be with people who are selling to stores like Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s. If they move in that direction, I’ll be Johnny-on-the-Spot.”

Stan Herman, who designed a chenille robe collection for QVC, said, “Anybody who is in business with stores certainly doesn’t want to bring the wrath of the stores down on them. But everybody’s dancing on tiptoe trying to make ends meet. QVC came in at a time when business was difficult. People who might not have looked at this medium saw it as a way to make money.”

After losing the backing for his business, Randolph Duke went into private label and also sells on QVC. He feels home shopping is an opportunity that should appeal to his generation.

“The designer business is looking for a new direction,” said Duke, who sold $1.1 million worth of apparel on his first show. “Something’s going to have to give, because you can’t — especially younger designers — market clothes at those price points and compete with the ad campaigns of Donna, Calvin and Ralph.

Duke is creating a line for Neiman Marcus.

“There’s a possibility that what we’re doing with Neiman’s could lead to electronic retailing. We’re calling it ‘much better.’ It’s not as low-priced as better and not as high as bridge has become. It’s where bridge used to be. There’s no reason why there can’t be synergies between stores and another network. The winners are those who keep their minds open.”

Bud Konheim, chairman of Nicole Miller Ltd., was dead set against home shopping because, he said, what he’d seen — polyester dresses and $14 rings — reminded him of Far Rockaway.

He took another look at HSN and QVC and saw that while the merchandise was not particularly upscale, the networks gave viewers a lot of information.

“The one thing we complain about is a lack of service and lack of information at the store level, including our own boutiques,” Konheim said. “Maybe QVC is in the Milton Berle stage of television. Maybe I should pay attention to how the thing is developing and get on board when the quality gets up to the level of something we believe our customers would want to look at.”

Konheim still has philosophical problems with mass-producing a Nicole Miller line.

“Do we want to sell millions of anything?” he asked rhetorically. “No. Our whole business is predicated on limited editions. We don’t sell to discount stores or outlet stores. We’re selling fashion, we’re not selling price. Dana Buchman said home shopping could work for her as a venue for items and basics.

“We’re sort of known for our blouses,” Buchman said. “It would be great to sell blouses where there’s a little forgiveness in the fit. As a concept, it’s quite interesting.”

Many of the designers that have already flocked to television had much to gain and little to lose. The big names — Donna, Calvin, Ralph — are the ones observers say will put fashion home shopping over the top, and these designers have entire franchises at stake that are built on finely hewn images.

“A lot of people who are finding a niche on home shopping channels are not big, big names,” said Herman. “They are names being built on the channels. Anybody who is as desirable as [Donna Karan] will have to figure out how they’re going to maneuver themselves.”

A spokeswoman for Donna Karan said the company would look at home shopping as any new business venture. The company, which evaluates every door Karan’s clothes are sold to, would look at [the channel] as another door.

Klein’s spokeswoman said the designer is taking a “wait-and-see attitude.”

But one New York retailer said home shopping could wake up the fashion industry to the fact that a backlash against designer prices may be brewing.

“When you start talking $3,000 or $2,500 for a suit, you’re talking about a lot of money, and you’re talking about a very small portion of the population,” the retailer said. “I don’t think they can be that precious anymore. It just may be unrealistic for somebody to come in and buy more than one or two outfits. And that doesn’t keep a store going.”